Virginia budget debate a trying time for Sen. Colgan

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Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno

RICHMOND - Just how close was Sen. Chuck Colgan to bucking his party and joining Republicans to pass a budget on Tuesday? So close that he changed his mind at least twice in the last couple of hours prior to the vote.

Colgan, D-Manassas, surprised nearly everyone in the General Assembly Tuesday by voting with fellow Democrats to defeat the budget that Colgan had supported in committee just a few weeks earlier.

Colgan, who at 85 is the state's longest-serving senator, told The Washington Examiner that until minutes before the bill came up for a vote he was still planning to support the budget, giving Republicans the lone Democratic vote they needed to pass it in the evenly divided chamber.

In a meeting with Democratic colleagues, Colgan had warned of his "great concern" of leaving the state without a budget, he said. But he also met privately with Gov. Bob McDonnell in hopes of resolving the issue that's keeping Democrats from supporting the spending plan: Additional money for the Dulles rail project.

Colgan sought a side agreement with McDonnell guaranteeing state financial support for Dulles rail. The governor provided a letter stating his own support for the project while insisting no additional money was available.

McDonnell said the $150 million the state awarded to the project in December was all his administration would provide for second phase of the rail line, according to the a copy of the letter obtained by The Examiner. Democrats sought an additional $150 million to $300 million to help prevent a massive incresase in tolls on the Dulles Toll Road that would help fund the rail line.

“Unfortunately, the ability of the commonwealth to provide additional funding at this time is simply not possible,” McDonnell wrote. "There are no dollars available for such a new investment. It would not be resposible to borrow new money to buy down tolls, and I cannot support taking major money from projects from other regions of the state."

The letter appeased Colgan, but enraged Democratic leadership. At that point, Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and Democratic Caucus Chairman Sen. Don McEachin, D-Henrico, had a heated exchange with McDonnell, Colgan said, in which both sides blamed each other for the budget's defeat.

Still, Colgan intended to vote for the budget and told fellow Democrats as much behind a closed-door meeting.

“They got really upset,” Colgan said. So Colgan decided to switch his vote and side with Democrats, though he added that “next time around, I’m voting for it.”

Technically, the budget is still alive and could come up for another vote Wednesday afternoon. Colgan said he didn’t think he would switch his vote again to support the budget, but was planning to discuss McDonnell's letter again with Democratic leaders.

Colgan, a former Senate Finance Committee chairman, said the past 48 hours have been very difficult for him. Ultimately, giving his colleagues another shot at securing Dulles rail money outweighed his concerns about not having a budget before the new fiscal year begins July 1.

“When you’re down and out," Colgan said, "you stick with your friends.”

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